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Modern technology and paleontology


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Do paleontologists use modern evolving equipment like drones to scour remote plateaus or steep dangerous cliffs ? Also with the advancement in facial recognition cameras could someone develop a software recognition program containing all main shapes and sizes of dinosaur fossils known, to electronically scan ground surface via a programmed drone. It would seem that the discovery process for paleontology is still the same as prior generations. Just curious as to the future in regards to ground imaging/penetration. If a surveillance camera can Id a person on city street by facial clues could that not be capitalized on for surface discovery. Just a thought. Wouldnt it be cost effective instead of relying on human eyes/time and random hikes.

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I believe there have been a few attempts to do this but it just doesn't work very well. The human eye is still the best tool out there for identifying fossils in the field, and you still need people on-site to collect them. The biggest constraint on discovery/description is still simply excavation/collection time and, subsequently, prep time, especially for large fossils like dinosaur skeletons.

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FranzBernhard

Agree with @jdp.

What I have learned here on TFF is, that the bottleneck is recovery/preparation/publication. Not to find fossils.

Well, if preparators and paleontologist would run idle, there would be already such tech "discovery methods" in operation. Its always a pity, how much good fossils disintegrate. Better, to find them before the elements take their toll. 

Franz Bernhard

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Ludwigia

I could at least imagine using drones to inspect hard-to-reach areas where the stratigraphy is at least approximately known. Would save a lot of footwork. But maybe some people are already doing this.

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For stratigraphic mapping, there are people who do that all the time. It used to be that this was done with LIDAR but now I think there are other remote mapping techniques. Hell, there are times when I'll go to good ol google earth to identify likely sections of rock. However, it's hard to really transition this to identifying actual fossils. That still requires putting some legwork in.

 

 

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Posted (edited)
18 minutes ago, ReptileTooth said:

I think it's been discussed before. 

Found link: Drones and fossils

Great, thanks. I noticed the Mars rover has a drone as well. I always think about the huge fossils falling out of a cliff that nobody will ever find. Are there parts of the Montana badlands that no one has explored?

Edited by Buteo
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pachy-pleuro-whatnot-odon

There are of course multiple definitions to the use of modern technology in the field of palaeontology. A good thread on the uses and pitfalls of remote sensing techniques as applied to the field can be found here, for example:

 

When it comes to drones, that's an entirely different matter. I know from my time as an archaeologist that drones were, at that time, being used to document excavation work and, to a lesser extent, map sites. The problem with the latter, of course, being that you will not always be able to visually spot the edge of a site, as this may sometimes even be hidden from the surface. That having been said, the use of area photography and remote sensing techniques in archaeology far predates the existence of drones - it dates back to WW-II surveillance techniques, with experiments even predating that - so with the arrival of drones the only thing that changed is that it's become cheaper and more accessible to make use of these technologies.

 

Within the field of palaeontology, however, I don't think such studies have really been performed - though that's just my expectation based on presumed utility. However, I can entirely imagine drones being used to document excavations as in archaeology, or to safely explore cliff faces where it's known fossil remains are to be found (e.g., the Suncor "ankylosaur" still being stuck in the quarry wall or the remainder of a marine reptile washed onto the beach still mostly being stuck in the cliff). But to actually have drones discover fossils without human intervention would be going a step too far, I think - at least for the time being. Sure, giant leaps have been taken in recent years to teach machines how to recognize plants - and apparently even meteorites! - but to recognize fossils takes quite a bit of additional skill. Not only is there a giant spectrum of possible shapes, but these shapes will frequently be less perfect that the ideal pattern a computer may have learned due to breakage or simply because of being covered up by either dirt or matrix. Matrix in itself complicates matters, as it may be difficult to differentiate between matrix and the fossil, complicating the task of a search. Geological context may help narrow the range of potential fossil shapes down, but simultaneously requires proper input by a human beforehand and has the downside of restricting the spectrum of potential fossils considered. Any abnormal fossil - either because it is not expected in the designated geological context or because it is as yet unknown to science - would be missed. Other complications include the fact that we humans have stereoscopic vision, whereas computers still typically have two-dimensional vision. And even where three-dimensionality can be achieved, this remains computationally intensive.

 

To be honest, I myself have pondered the question of whether computers would be able to take over part of the work concerning fossil identification or elements of archaeological field work (e.g., drawing up a stratigraphy) quite a bit and have come to the conclusion that, with such tools being extremely difficult to build, their costs would outweigh their benefits. Most recently I had the idea that I might develop a mobile app to help identify mosasaur teeth. Now I'm far from an academic programmer or specialist in any of the computer science fields that you'd need to build upon - even though I work as a computer programmer, I don't have any official background in the field other than my experience - but I discussed it with a couple of my colleagues, primarily students about to graduate from the Technical University of Delft who did have an interest and some experience with the required technologies - and you'd need to apply such a variety of techniques - photogrammetry, automated 3D modelling, model cross-referencing (which, in itself requires creating a seed database with 3D models), statistical predictions as to imperfect model shapes, etc. - that such a project would be incredibly difficult to achieve, especially, in this case, since certain mosasaur teeth have such similar characteristics that it can even be difficult to tell them apart for a human, with differences sometimes being minute. Certainly, there are benefits to having such determinations performed by clear rules applied in a fixed manner, in the way computers would do. But it's exactly the "clear" part that's the issue with machine learning. Because, more often than not, "machine learning" is a term used to express the idea that the precise workings of the algorithm are unknown to the human programmer.

 

Just my 2cts I guess ;)

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A friend of mine in Arizona is developing a drone that uses lasers to scan the ground for fossils.  It works but has its limitations.  (Like it only works at night).  It is pretty cool.  When I go hang out with him, we always discuss the pros and cons of this sort of thing.  To me, field work becomes too snarge boring.  He argues that he cover much more terrain in the same amount of time.  I remind him that he still has to spend tons of time processing the data.  Time that I would rather be out walking in the badlands.  But I digress.

 

Paleontologists use all sorts of other high tech to do paleo work, from supercomputers to crunch data to CT scanners to look into both rocks and fossils to 3d printers and the aforementioned laser scanners to see some incredible soft tissues not visible to you and I... the list goes on.  I often advise any young paleo wanna-be I talk to learn computer skills.  Not just how to use TikTok, but learn the basics of programming.  This is where the future of paleo is.  The future of many fields.  For example, at the college where I work the geology students who also get a degree/certificate in GIS have a much better chance of finding a job.  

 

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Thank you both for taking the time to explain this further. Very interesting to me. 

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2 hours ago, jpc said:

Paleontologists use all sorts of other high tech to do paleo work, from supercomputers to crunch data to CT scanners to look into both rocks and fossils 

 

Yep, this is most of my life these days.

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FossilDAWG
3 hours ago, jpc said:

...  To me, field work becomes too snarge boring.  He argues that he cover much more terrain in the same amount of time.  I remind him that he still has to spend tons of time processing the data.  Time that I would rather be out walking in the badlands.  ...

 

 

This is confusing.  I assume you meant "To him, field work becomes too snarge boring.

 

Don

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FossilDAWG
3 hours ago, jpc said:

 I often advise any young paleo wanna-be I talk to learn computer skills.  Not just how to use TikTok, but learn the basics of programming.  This is where the future of paleo is.  The future of many fields.  

 

Very true of biology as well.

 

Don

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Yep, I'm currently writing up a paper that consists of about 3 weeks of benchwork and a ton of computational analysis. That's high-throughput sequencing for you.

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pachy-pleuro-whatnot-odon
5 hours ago, jpc said:

Paleontologists use all sorts of other high tech to do paleo work, from supercomputers to crunch data to CT scanners to look into both rocks and fossils to 3d printers and the aforementioned laser scanners to see some incredible soft tissues not visible to you and I... the list goes on.  I often advise any young paleo wanna-be I talk to learn computer skills.  Not just how to use TikTok, but learn the basics of programming.  This is where the future of paleo is.  The future of many fields.  For example, at the college where I work the geology students who also get a degree/certificate in GIS have a much better chance of finding a job.

 

In that respect archaeology and palaeontology are quite similar. Archaeology - in combining elements form the disciplines of survey-based sciences, geology and soil sciences, anthropology, palaeoanthropology, palaeontology, environmental studies, medical studies, art history, architecture, urban planning, history and more (basically apart from anything you need to find, excavate and process a site through any activity humans have undertaken in the course of history) - uses a broad range of techniques, including isotope analysis; componential analysis; dating techniques based on radioactive decay; LiDAR and remote sensing; CT scanning to analyse fossils, mummies and artefacts; and more. It may have once been true that it was kind of a stuffy discipline with preconceived ideas based on historical records. But it's rapidly changing and doing its best to keep up with the latest technological developments that may help in its analysis and understand of the human story...

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3 hours ago, FossilDAWG said:

This is confusing.  I assume you meant "To him, field work becomes too snarge boring.

 

Don

Correction: I meant "to me, field work without actively looking for stuff is boring"  

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